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Tips for enjoying 2015’s August Perseid meteor shower

Meteor and star trails, by Vic Winter.

Tonight for August 10, 2015

Image above via Vic Winter

After a night of meteor watching, watch for Orion to climb above the horizon shortly before dawn. Cool trick: Use Orion's Belt to find the constellation Taurus the Bull.

After a night of meteor watching, watch for Orion to climb above the horizon shortly before dawn. Cool trick: Use Orion’s Belt to find the constellation Taurus the Bull.

As darkness gives way to the first stirrings of dawn on Tuesday, August 11, let the waning moon guide your eye to the Gemini stars, Castor and Pollux. The planet Mars may be difficult to catch so close to the horizon.

As darkness gives way to the first stirrings of dawn on Tuesday, August 11, let the waning moon guide your eye to the Gemini stars, Castor and Pollux. The planet Mars may be difficult to catch so close to the horizon.

It’s time again for the peak of Perseid meteor shower, often the best meteor shower of the year – definitely a sky highlight of our Northern Hemisphere summer. At its peak, the Perseids often rain down 50-100 or more meteors per hour. Although we give the nod to the night of August 12-13, the night before (August 11-12) or after (August 13-14) may offer a good smattering of meteors, too. Or even tonight (August 10-11) might present a decent number of meteors. Predicting the peak (or multiple peaks) of a meteor shower involves a lot of guesswork, and meteor showers are notorious for defying the best-laid forecasts. If it’s clear, by all means give this shower a try on any clear night for the next several nights. A good percentage of these colorful and swift-moving meteors often leave persistent trains – ionized gas trails that linger for a moment or two after the meteor has gone. The tips below can help you enjoy.

1. Watch between midnight and dawn. Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Perseids are no exception. After midnight, the part of Earth you’re standing on has turned into the meteor stream, which means the radiant point for the shower will be above your horizon. After the radiant rises, you’ll see more meteors.

2. Avoid city lights. A wide open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors.

3. Sprawl out in a moon shadow. Fortunately, the slender waxing crescent moon won’t obtrude on this year’s meteor shower. However, in years when the moon is up around the shower’s peak dates, it’ll be casting looooong shadows at early evening and before dawn. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides a wide expanse of sky. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to block out the moon would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a wide open field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn or other building. Ensconced within a moon shadow, and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.

David S. Brown caught this meteor on July 30, 2014.

David S. Brown caught this meteor on July 30, 2014.

4. Watch with friend or friends, and try facing in different directions so that if someone sees a meteor, that person can call out “meteor” to the rest.

5. Embrace the moon. We hear people bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of conditions – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. The Perseids, in particular, tend to have a lot of fireballs. And so, around the nights of the shower, try taking your lawn chair or blanket to a wide open location and bask in the moon’s bright light. you’ll see an occasional fireball streak by. It’ll be beautiful!

6. Try observing in the evening hours. You won’t see as many meteors during the evening hours, and the shower will be past its peak on those nights. But you still might catch an earthgrazer, which is a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. If you see one, you’ll have a new appreciation for evening meteor watching.

Perseid meteors fly every August because that’s when our planet Earth is crossing the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Even though this comet is now moving in the outer solar system, the stream of rubble trailing Swift-Tuttle extends for hundreds of millions of kilometers in space. This comet debris vaporizes or burns up in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, lighting up August nights with streaking Perseid meteors. The shower peaks when we pass through the thickest clump of cometary dust and ices.

radiant_perseids_430

The paths of the Perseid meteors, when traced backward, appear to originate from the constellation Perseus. Hence, this meteor shower’s name. However, you don’t have to know the constellation Perseus to watch the Perseid meteor shower, for the Perseids fly every which way across the starry heavens. The radiant sits low in the northeast sky at evening and climbs upward throughout the night. The higher that the radiant is in your sky, the more Perseid meteors you’re likely to see.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower never gets very high in the sky. Therefore, the number of Perseid meteors seen from this part of the world isn’t as great as at more northerly latitudes. But if you’re game, look northward in the wee hours before dawn and you may still see a sprinkling of Perseids. As darkness give way to dawn, look for the planets Venus and Jupiter in the eastern sky.

Bottom line: With almost no moon to ruin the show, the year 2015 is a favorable one for watching the annual Perseid meteor shower. Here are some tips for watching the 2015 Perseid shower.

When is the next meteor shower? Click here for EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2015

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